By Giacomo Bologna and Hayes Gardner
Baltimore Sun
Published: Sep 12, 2023 at 6:00 am

There is a small group of predominantly Black neighborhoods in East Baltimore where the homicide rate has plunged, vacant homes have been renovated, property values are rising and new residents have arrived without displacing existing ones.

The coalition of religious leaders overseeing those improvements — a nonprofit called BUILD — wants to take its model to neighborhoods across Baltimore and tackle the city’s crisis of empty lots and vacant homes. But many people have balked at the plan’s estimated price tag: $2.5 billion in government bonds.

It’s a big number, acknowledged the Rev. George Hopkins, BUILD’s co-chair, but he wishes people could see the same value in Baltimore’s neighborhoods that they see in the stadiums where the Ravens and Orioles play.

Those stadiums are slated to receive $1.2 billion of public money — $600 million each — in the coming years. To Hopkins and other Baltimore advocates, it’s proof that politicians can find money to tackle the city’s most pressing problems — if they want to.

“It’s never an issue about the wallet,” Hopkins said. “It’s always an issue about the political will.”

State lawmakers — and Orioles and Ravens leadership — overwhelmingly supported a bill approving the $1.2 billion in bonds last year, but the amount reemerged this spring in lease talks between the Orioles and their Oriole Park landlord, the state. The ballclub’s lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority expires at the end of this year and to fully access the new public money, the Orioles would need to sign a long-term lease.

Negotiations between the club and the state have recently faced scrutiny, in part because Orioles CEO John Angelos asked for more money, as well as development rights to nearby state-owned parking lots, sources told The Baltimore Sun.

Democratic Gov. Wes Moore’s administration remains confident a deal will get done, however, according to an Aug. 29 statement from David Turner, a senior adviser and communications director for Moore.

“The Orioles have been reliable, community-minded partners and we are working together to secure the team’s future at Camden Yards for decades to come,” Turner said.

The $1.2 billion for stadium improvements is already an unparalleled infusion of taxpayer money into Baltimore. It’s roughly twice the amount of money Baltimore City government received from the federal coronavirus relief bill in 2021, and economists say it’s a better deal for the Orioles and Ravens than most pro sports teams can claim.

Still, spending hundreds millions of taxpayer dollars on stadiums is normal in the United States. West Virginia University economist Brad Humphreys said that if an American explained this to someone in Europe — where stadiums are almost always privately funded — “they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.”

Many economists who study the topic say massive public subsidies for professional sports stadiums are often not worth the investment, and that the money would be better spent elsewhere. But American sports teams make both an economic and psychological arguments for public money. And if the Orioles, hypothetically, were discontented with the state’s contribution and moved, as the Baltimore Colts did in 1984, it would have a devastating effect on many Maryland residents.

Although that possibility is unlikely, it’s partly why Maryland lawmakers passed the bill last year that authorized the stadium authority to borrow $1.2 billion for improvements to the venues.

At least one statewide official publicly expressed concerns about the funding for stadium improvements.

“When I was awake in econ class … I learned the concept of opportunity cost,” Treasurer Dereck Davis, a Democrat, said in January. “What are we forgoing?”

The answer could be $90 million every year for two or three decades. Under the law, the state can divert up to $90 million of lottery revenue annually to pay back the $1.2 billion in bonds. With interest, repayment could cost the state over $2 billion.

That $90 million a year is about the same as a plan Moore pitched to tackle child poverty in Maryland. During his campaign for governor, the Democrat said he wanted to give $3,200 to every child born into a family using Medicaid. With an annual price tag of more than $92 million, his plan would benefit roughly 27,000 low-income families, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, The Washington Post estimated.

Lawmakers adjusted Maryland’s tax code this session to benefit some families, but Moore hasn’t introduced a “Baby Bonds” plan in Annapolis.

That doesn’t surprise Nate Golden, a Baltimore teacher who leads the Maryland Child Alliance. The group, largely made up of teachers, wants direct payments to parents to alleviate childhood poverty. The alliance is collecting signatures for a city ballot initiative that would require Baltimore to give new parents a one-time payment of $1,000.

About a third of Baltimore children grow up in poverty, said Golden, but he hasn’t seen any urgency from lawmakers to address the crisis.

“Legislators will find a way to find the money, if something is important to them,” Golden said. “What it says to me is that child poverty is not important to them.”

State lawmakers found some money for Baltimore City Public Schools a decade ago when they authorized the stadium authority to borrow $1.1 billion to renovate and rebuild 29 schools in Baltimore.

It was less than the $2.4 billion the school system determined it needed in a 2011 assessment. Now the school district estimates that number has swelled to $4 billion to renovate and replace some of the other 183 buildings it operates.

A dozen schools still lack air conditioning — down from 76 buildings in 2017. The district said cold weather is a bigger concern now, with more children staying home on winter days because of unreliable heating systems at schools. According to the school system, its buildings are the oldest of any district in Maryland and it doesn’t have enough money to maintain, let alone renovate, them.

Another round of state bonds for Baltimore schools appears unlikely, though, as lawmakers are under pressure to fund a new Red Line — a proposed east-west rail line canceled by former Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. The $2.9 billion proposal would have connected the Bayview area in Southeast Baltimore to Woodlawn in Baltimore County.

Moore has vowed to establish an east-west connector. Before he took office, the Maryland Department of Transportation put together seven alternatives to the Red Line and included cost estimates. Rapid bus transit lines would cost between $800 million to $1 billion, while a 16.4-mile light rail line would cost $3.1 billion.

Smaller transportation concepts — like improved bike infrastructure — also struggle to find funding. The city issued a plan in 2017 that called for 77 miles of bike lanes at a cost of about $27 million, but little has been built so far, largely because of a lack of funds, said Jed Weeks, interim director of the bicycle advocacy group Bikemore.

Weeks pointed to a 2023 report from the Baltimore Department of Transportation that identified $1.7 billion worth of deferred maintenance, meaning the agency has delayed repairing bridges, repaving roads, fixing sidewalks, timing streetlights, cleaning alleys and more. That includes an estimated $657 million in repairs and upgrades to make the city’s pedestrian infrastructure compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“There’s a lot that could be done with that amount of money,” Weeks said of the $1.2 billion for stadium improvements. “We know that access to reliable transportation brings people out of poverty.”

As for BUILD’s Hopkins, he is gearing up for the state’s 2024 legislative session. BUILD wants to create a quasi-government agency that could borrow $2.5 billion over 10 to 15 years, using that money to leverage private funds and rebuild the mostly Black and low-income neighborhoods that are pockmarked with thousands of abandoned homes and vacant lots.

Hopkins said the resulting increase in economic activity and property tax revenue would cover the bonds’ costs.

Some politicians are coming around to BUILD’s idea. City and state lawmakers attended a July rally at an East Baltimore church, where Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott spoke in support of the plan. Hundreds of people packed the church and an overflow room. BUILD’s leaders said they intend to flood Annapolis with thousands of supporters during the legislative session, and pressure lawmakers to act.

“The work that we’re trying to do is not going to easily just happen,” Hopkins said. “It’s going to take bold, courageous leadership.”

But lawmakers will be grappling with a lean budget next year. Speaking Aug. 19 at a conference of Maryland county officials, Moore said the state’s economy has not kept pace with government spending. The governor did not suggest budget cuts or tax increases, but warned local leaders to prepare for belt-tightening.

“This will be a season of discipline,” Moore said, “and our choices must reflect that.”

It’s unclear how this belt-tightening will impact the ambitions of his friend, Angelos. The pair traveled to Georgia earlier this year to visit The Battery, a suburban “live-work-play” development built around the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park, which Angelos used as an example of what could be possible in Baltimore.

In a memo a year ago to the team’s front-office staff, obtained by The Sun, Angelos said a new lease would highlight “our philosophy of what true private-public partnership should be about.”

Moore administration officials said Aug. 29 that the governor maintains a “shared vision” with Angelos.

Turner, the governor’s communications director, described a goal of the deal as one “that keeps the Orioles in Baltimore and is good for the taxpayers of Maryland.”

“This approach will attract private investment to Baltimore for the benefit of the broader Baltimore community and Marylanders all across the state,” Turner said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker, Hannah Gaskill and Sam Janesch contributed to this article.


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